Another pillow struck me. I sat up and fired it back at her. Giggling wildly, Sofia leapt over the back of the sofa. I leaned over and whacked her with a pillow and ducked as she popped up to swat me again.
We were so busy that neither of us noticed the front door opening and closing.
“Uh… Avery?” came Val’s voice. “I brought sandwiches for lunch, and —”
“Just set it on the counter,” I called, leaning over the back of the sofa to wallop Sofia. “We’re having an executive meeting.” Thwack.
Sofia launched a counterattack, while I flung myself to the sofa cushions. Thwack. Thwack.
“Avery.” A note in Val’s voice caused my sister to stop. “We have a visitor.”
I lifted my head and peeked over the sofa back. My eyes widened as I saw Joe Travis standing there.
Mortified, I dropped back out of sight. I lay back on the sofa, my heart thundering. He was here. He had shown up, as he’d said he would. I felt light-headed. Why hadn’t he chosen a moment when I’d been composed and professional, instead of finding me in the middle of a pillow fight with my sister like a couple of twelve-year-olds?
“We were letting off steam,” I heard Sofia say, still breathless.
“Can I watch?” Joe asked, making her laugh.
“I think we’re done now.”
Joe walked around the sectional and came to stand over me as I lay on my back. His gaze skimmed briefly over the length of my body. I was wearing another one of my shapeless but expensive dresses, black and sleeveless. Although the hem usually reached to midcalf, it had ridden above my knees when I’d flopped onto the sofa.
I couldn’t look at him without remembering the last time we’d been together, the way I’d writhed and kissed him and told him everything. Mortified color blanketed me head to toe. What made it worse was that Joe smiled as if he understood exactly what was causing my distress.
“You have great legs,” he said as he reached down for me, his fingers closing around mine. I was hauled to my feet with easy strength. “I told you I’d show up,” he murmured.
“A little more advance notice would have been nice.” Hastily I pulled my hand away from his and tugged my dress into place.
“And give you a chance to run?” He pushed back a wave of hair that had fallen over my eyes and tucked another behind my ear with unmistakable familiarity.
Conscious of Sofia’s and Val’s interested regard, I cleared my throat and said in a professional voice, “What can I help you with?”
“I came by to see if you wanted to go out to lunch. There’s a Cajun diner downtown – it’s not fancy, but the food is good.”
“Thank you, but Val already brought sandwiches.”
“I didn’t bring anything for you, Avery,” Val called from the kitchen. “Just for me and Sofia.”
Like hell. I looked around Joe’s shoulder, ready to call Val on it, but she ignored me, staying busy in the kitchen.
Sofia smiled at me, her eyes mischievous. “Go have lunch, mi hermana.” Deliberately she added, “Take as long as you want – your schedule is clear for the rest of the afternoon.”
“I had plans,” I said. “I was going to look over everyone’s expense accounts.”
Sofia gave Joe an imploring glance. “Keep her away as long as possible,” she said, and he laughed.
“I’ll do that.”
The Cajun diner was lined with a counter and steel-framed stools on one side and a row of booths on the other. The atmosphere was agreeably boisterous, the air filled with brisk conversation, the scrape of flatware on melamine plates, and the rattling of ice cubes in tall glasses of sweet tea. Waitresses carried plates filled with steaming food… étouffée thick with plump crawfish tails, ladled over patties of grits fried in butter… po’boy rolls stuffed with lobster and shrimp.
To my relief, our conversation stayed in safe territory, with no mention of our last encounter. As I described the meeting with the Warners, Joe was amused and sympathetic.
The waitress brought out our order, two plates of pompano that had been stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat and baked in foil pouches with a butter-and-wine velouté sauce. Every bite was creamy and tender, melting luxuriously on my tongue.
“I have an ulterior motive for asking you out today,” Joe said as we ate. “I need to stop by an animal shelter and take some pictures of a couple of new dogs. Want to come and help?”
“I’ll try… but I don’t think I’m good with dogs.”
“Are you afraid of them?”
“No, I’ve just never been around them.”
“It’ll be fine. I’ll tell you what to do.”
After lunch, we drove to the shelter, a small brick building with abundant windows and crisp white trim. A sign featuring cartoon cats and dogs read “Happy Tails Rescue Society.” Joe pulled a camera bag and a duffel bag from the back of his Jeep, and we walked into the shelter. The lobby was bright and cheerful, featuring an interactive screen where visitors could browse through photos and descriptions of available animals.
An elderly man with a shock of white hair came from behind the counter to greet us, his blue eyes twinkling as he shook hands with Joe. “Millie called you about the latest group?”
“Yes, sir. She said four had been sent by a city shelter.”
“Another one arrived this morning.” The man’s friendly gaze turned to me.
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